Ahh, 1994. Heavy guitars were raining down metal grit on Seattle.
British shoegazers had ditched the chiming dynamics of U2 for the
swirling, electrified wail of My Bloody Valentine. Everywhere you
looked, flannel-clad bodies were crowd-surfing and shaggy-haired
heads were banging.
And in Portland, Oregon, a rainy Pacific Northwest town collecting
moss in Seattle's looming shadow, Elliott Smith was recording the
melancholy odes to addiction that would comprise his first record,
A member of the angst-rock outfit Heatmiser, Smith was a reformed
exploring the quiet side of depression, a herald of the "Leonard Cohen
afterworld" that led Kurt Cobain to unplug around the same time. In
a musical landscape where sincerity and humanity were drowned out
by fuzzboxes and upper-register wailing, Smith's intimate ballads
were a revelation to the few who listened in.
Smith's second album, a self-titled effort released on the Kill
Rock Stars label in 1995, brought him acclaim in the fickle indie
community, but its raw aesthetic and morbid subject matter made
Smith a mere footnote in the national pop scene. Radios weren't
ready for the acidic observations Smith offered in tunes like "Needle
in the Hay," which could be interpreted as either self-loathing
confession or biting critique of a junkie's harrowing downward spiral.
Perhaps playing on this dichotomy present in his songs (which early
critics assumed were about Smith's own battles with drug addiction),
Smith titled his 1997 follow-up Either/Or. It was on this
album that he began stretching beyond the confines of his "punk
folkie" label, adding electric accompaniment and stick-in-your-head
harmonies to augment his downbeat diatribes. One of Either/Or's
many gems, "Pictures of Me," was a prescient account of Smith's
revulsion at the prospect of celebrity: "So sick and tired of all
these pictures of me / Completely wrong / Totally wrong." The sentiment
would mark Smith for the next three years, as critics repeatedly
portrayed him as a reticent pop idol who hated the attention foisted
upon him by fawning reviewers and fans.
Shortly after Either/Or's release, Smith gained national
attention when "Miss Misery," a song he composed for Gus Van Sant's
film Good Will Hunting, was nominated for an Academy Award.
The surreal Oscar-night performance that followed (which featured
Smith, clad in an ill-fitting white tuxedo, playing alongside such
adult-contemporary luminaries as Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood)
caught the eye of scouts at Dreamworks' newly formed record division.
XO, Smith's major label debut, shocked many of his fans,
who thought the album's sparkling production, soaring string arrangements
and multi-tracked harmonies sounded like a bid for Top 40 fame.
On Smith's early recordings (done mostly on 8-track tape in friends'
basements), there was a ghostly intimacy that enchanted the listener;
you could hear Smith sigh between lyrics or catch the gentle scrape
of his fingers on the guitar's strings as he changed chords.
But underneath the DIY aesthetic of his early work were signs of
an ambition and talent too vast for the underground to contain.
On XO's "Independence Day," an ode to personal transformation
built upon the simple metaphor of a butterfly emerging from its
cocoon, Smith described his musical evolution even as he predicted
the backlash that would inevitably attend it: "Ooh, don't go too
far / Stay who you are É Everybody knows / You only live a day /
But it's brilliant anyway."
The metaphor begs an important question: Just who is Elliott Smith,
exactly? Acoustic folkie? Troubled troubadour? King of pop? Figure
8, Smith's latest effort, finds the artist at a musical peak,
yet many fans insist his songs have lost something in the big-budget
translation. In one sense, they're right; much of the intimacy of
Smith's earlier work has been lost. But what remains is no less
satisfying: grand, exquisitely crafted pop tunes that put today's
melody-deficient rock acts to shame.
Smith's evolution shouldn't be much of a surprise. From the "Rocky
Raccoon"-cribbed intro of Either/Or's "Between the Bars"
to the bouncing guitar-jaunt borrowed from Sgt. Pepper's
"Getting Better" for XO's "Baby Britain," Smith's Beatles
obsession has been a persistent presence in his work. On Figure
8, Smith is finally able to internalize the Beatles' knack for
song craft without paying direct homage to specific works. The result
is an album packed with innovative arrangements and colored with
a diverse tonal palette, such as the haunting piano and echoing
drums of "Everything means nothing to me" and the melancholy organ
that undermines the optimistic coda of "Happiness."
There is glorious music in Smith's blood, and it pulses stronger
than any commitment to the garage-rock aesthetic. Smith seems to
be embracing his newfound success with a smile, no longer afraid
of the celebrity that surrounds him. As he notes on Figure 8's
joyous "L.A.," the future is bright: "Stepping out, out for a change
/ Good morning all, it's a beautiful day."